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Big Changes Demand Small Considerations

By Pat Wallington  |  Posted 2003-02-01 Print this article Print

Keeping everyone in the loop when making a culture shift is not only smart, it's right.

The biggest and toughest decision of my career—and the one that I learned the most from—was turning over Xerox's routine computing operations to Electronic Data Systems.

This is old news, in the sense that we signed up with EDS in 1993. I managed the contract for several years, and I'm still proud of how we managed our way through a sweeping change that affected so many people. Even today, as difficult as things are for Xerox, I hate to think where they would be if they had not made that change. It wasn't just about cutting overhead; it was about changing directions.

PDF Download Paul Allaire, the Xerox CEO who recruited me, had established the strategy of moving beyond copiers into more networked products. Our people in the field were used to selling a product that you could plug into the wall, listen for the hum of the motor, and walk away. They needed experience with networked systems. Unfortunately, a lot of our own information systems weren't designed to talk to anything else.

We had an operating group called the President's Council, and one day they turned to me and said, "Pat, we'll support you, but bring us back a really aggressive plan so we can break the hold this legacy has on us. Don't tell us about little savings you can generate here and there—bring us a really aggressive plan."

My answer was really designed to change the culture: I wanted my staff managing the front end of the learning curve, not the long, slow slide to obsolescence. The problem with the legacy systems was they consumed so many resources that we had maybe 1% of our attention on the future. Of course, the other side of "legacy" is those are the tried-and-true systems that are running the business. Maintenance was essential, but I needed to separate that function so my staff could be more forward-looking.

So we turned to outsourcing—having a vendor take over our technology infrastructure, as well as taking the employees dedicated to maintenance.

As soon as we started considering it, we sent a note to every I.T. employee in the world, letting him or her know we were looking at this. If they heard about it, I didn't want it to be by rumor. But that left people up in the air, and the suspense only intensified while we were working to select a vendor.

Because Xerox encouraged open communication, people were writing letters to Paul saying all sorts of terrible things about me. He would show them to me, and it did bother me. But Paul also offered advice—maybe not quite this concisely, but this is how I remember it. He said, "When you're doing something like this, it's just one of those lonely decisions that you make, and the only thing you can do is ask yourself, 'Am I doing the right thing, am I doing it for the right reasons, and am I doing it the right way?'"

He assured me he believed I was doing the right things for the right reasons, and so we focused on doing it the right way. We pulled together a roundtable of employees of other companies who had been through this process and who had been acquired, meaning they now worked for the outsourcer their old employer had signed up with. We asked basic questions. How did you hear about this? What did your management do right? What did they do that we shouldn't?

Some told us they heard about it the day the contract was signed, so they were impressed that Xerox had let people know this was being considered. Still, most of their recommendations revolved around being considerate of the effect on people's lives.

The best we could do was get through the process as quickly as possible so people could go on with their lives. Ultimately, about 1,300 Xerox employees transferred to EDS, which took over data center and network operations as well as providing services like PC support.

Later, Paul told me, "Many of your colleagues would have waited until they were asked to do this." But if you wait until everyone else sees the need, by the time you take action it may already be too late.

— Written with David F. Carr

Patricia Wallington, former corporate VP and CIO at Xerox, is now president of CIO Associates in Sarasota, Fla.

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